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The Christian Mama’s Guide to the Grade School Years, by Erin MacPherson

*** (3/5 stars)

This is a short, easy-to-read book about being an effective Christian mom during the elementary school years. Erin MacPherson’s style is informal and chatty, in a “from one mom to another” kind of way. I appreciated her emphasis, throughout the book, on keeping one’s priorities straight. As important as it is that a child learn and grow educationally and socially during grade school, his or her spiritual development is even more important. MacPherson does a good job keeping that priority clear.   She identifies fifteen attributes (for example, faith, work ethic, responsibility, self-control, discernment, etc.)  that moms can nurture in their kids to help them grow into the persons God wants them to be.

The book is a part of a new “Christian Mama’s Guide” series, all written by MacPherson.   The others cover pregnancy, infancy, and the toddler years.  I was rather surprised, when starting this book about the grade school years, to discover that MacPherson wrote it when her oldest child was only six.   I can see that the publisher (Thomas Nelson) might consider it to be advantageous to release all 4 “Christian Mama” guides simultaneously, and MacPherson does explain that she’s written this one in consultation with her own mother, an elementary school principal.  But I think this book would have been better if MacPherson had waited a few years to write it.  Although the emphasis on spiritual development certainly applies to all of grade school (and beyond), much of the advice and personal examples are more relevant to the early years.  My own grade-schooler is 9 1/2, so our family is a bit beyond learning to read or the stage of what MacPherson calls “The Glitter Glue Incident.”   I realize this is a relatively short book and not meant to be a comprehensive manual, but it still would have been nice to have at least one chapter on upper-grade-school issues (i.e., peer pressure, approaching puberty, cultural/media messages, increasingly complex relationships, etc.).  (It MUST NOT be a book about the preteen years — there wasn’t a single mention of Justin Bieber in the ENTIRE book!)   Even so, I enjoyed the book and feel that I took away some insights that made it worth reading.

Disclosure:   I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, in exchange for an honest review.


Afraid to Believe in Free Will: The Human Tendency to Avoid Responsibility for Free Choices, by Carl E. Begley

*** (3/5 stars)
Do human beings possess free will and the ability to make choices about our everyday behaviors and about the way we live our lives? Or are our choices determined by forces that we cannot completely understand, such as rewards (reinforcers), unconscious emotions, environment, and childhood experiences?

As Begley makes clear, these issues are not merely theoretical; they have profound implications for individuals, culture, and public policy. Begley explains that although the existence/nonexistence of free will cannot be directly studied scientifically, it can be inferred in various ways. Furthermore, the belief in free will can be studied. As Begley convincingly shows, modern belief in determinism (i.e., the nonexistence of free will), perpetuated in part by psychology as a science, has a disturbingly negative effect on us on both an individual and a societal level.

As I began this book, I wasn’t sure that the word “afraid” in Begley’s title really fit a discussion of belief in free will. Sure, because of materialistic assumptions, our culture in general, and psychology and other sciences in particular, tends not to believe in free will. But afraid to believe? Begley’s premise, however, is that, both individually and collectively, we are afraid of the power that free will gives. With the power to make our own choices comes the need to accept the responsibility for those choices. We’d rather avoid that responsibility for ourselves, and even for others. It’s much more comfortable for us to believe, for example, that hardened criminals are the products of their environments than to believe that they made evil choices. Our tendency to excuse ourselves and others can be seen throughout society — in the media, in public policy, in the education establishment, even in our churches and charitable organizations.

To avoid confusion, I should perhaps point out here that Begley is not saying that factors such as environment, childhood experiences, and unconscious emotions do not affect the choices people make, but that believing in free will means believing that people have the power to make choices within the circumstances of their lives. That belief might be intimidating, but to my mind, it is also liberating.

Dr. Begley makes many very good points, informed by his years of experience as a psychologist. Unfortunately, this self-published book seems to suffer from the lack of a professional editor. I do not mean to imply that the book is poorly written or contains multiple errors. Other than the occasional awkward sentence or grammatical mistake, it is actually fairly well written. But, in my opinion, it needs pruning and revision.

For example, while reading the book, I was unsure of Begley’s intended audience. I noticed that many other reviewers stated that the book contains (in the words of one reviewer) “dense psychology,” and was therefore rather difficult reading. I have a background in psychology, so I did not find this book hard to understand, but I think that most readers would. If Begley means to write for the general population, then the book should be revised so that the wording is less heavy on terminology from, for example, Freudian and Jungian analysis. (Jungian archetypes in particular are over-emphasized in the book.) On the other hand, if Begley intends his book for a professional psychology audience, then his (well-worded) explanations of such terminology are unnecessary.

Although the book is, in general, well organized, at times the author seems to go off on a tangent. The most glaring example of this is the chapter entitled “Arguments From Religion.” Here, Begley gives a helpful discussion of how Christian faith and theology are able to resolve some of the psychological conflicts created by the concept of free will. For example, emotional guilt resulting from bad choices can be resolved when a Christian believer truly accepts God’s forgiveness. However, this discussion is interrupted and detracted from by long-winded analyses of the interaction of religious belief and free will in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in the life of psychologist Carl Jung.

Again, assistance from professional publishers would clear up these matters of audience and focus — and tighten the material accordingly.

I debated how many stars to give this book, and decided that it deserves 4 stars for content but only 2 for presentation. That rounds off to 3 stars — not bad. Ultimately, though, I’m frustrated because this book could have been so much better.

This book is published by Westbrow Press, the self-publishing division of Thomas Nelson. Westbrow’s web site states that Thomas Nelson editors regularly review the self-published books for possible publication by their “traditional” departments. I hope that Thomas Nelson will consider this book for traditional publication. With some appropriate editorial assistance, this book could make a significant contribution. In the meantime, despite its flaws, I think this book was worth reading, and I’d recommend it to readers who are interested in the topic.

Disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book from Thomas Nelson in exchange for writing an honest review.

The Beauty Book (The Lily Series) by Nancy Rue

This book is a beauty manual for Christian tween girls. It does a good job of balancing, on the one hand, the natural desire of young girls to look their best with, on the other hand, the importance of teaching girls to value their whole selves as God’s creations.

A growing interest in feminine matters (clothes, skincare, etc.) is a normal part of the maturation process for most girls in early adolescence.   So is, unfortunately, insecurity about appearance and body image.  In this book, Nancy Rue (author of the popular “Lily Series”) attempts to help girls think about these aspects of their lives in a healthy and God-honoring way.  The language is a little too cutesy for adult tastes (for example, frequent references to “your you-nique you”) but will probably appeal to its young readers.  Each chapter includes quizzes and activities, as well as sections designed to guide tween girls in thinking Christianly about that chapter’s issue (“How is this a God thing?”) and praying about it.

The book’s beauty tips are sensible and age-appropriate for early adolescence.  The emphasis is on encouraging readers to take care of their bodies and enhance their God-given unique beauty in a way that respects themselves, their parents, and God.  Rue consistently defers to parents on such issues as whether a girl is old enough to wear makeup, shave her legs, etc.  She gives advice about how to apply makeup appropriately, shave legs, choose modest and flattering clothes, and so on — but with the caveat that parental approval must be obtained first. Rue explains that parents have good reasons for not wanting their daughters to grow up too soon, and that a girl should honor her parents’ decisions on these matters.

The only quarrel that I have is not with the book itself but with its promotion by its publisher, Thomas Nelson, which suggests that the book is appropriate for girls ages 7 to 11.  I’m no expert, but I’d say a more accurate age range would be about 10 to 14.  My daughter is 8 1/2, and although she enjoys choosing her clothes and doing her own hair, most of the issues covered in this book are well beyond her interest or understanding.  I plan to hang onto it, though, and give it to her in a few years, once she’s old enough to be concerned about whether she’s allowed to wear makeup, what to do about her pimples, and when her breasts are going to finally grow in!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN, Christian Encounters Series, by Mark Horne

This brief biography of the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is at once engrossing and accessible. Horne does a good job of interweaving details of Tolkien’s life with insights about the possible impact of his life experiences on his famous fantasy novels. I’m amazed that Horne is able to give such a complete treatment of his subject’s rich and fascinating life in a mere 130 pages.   Horne takes the reader from Tolkien’s childhood and early loss of both parents, through his education, marriage, and WWI  battlefield experience, through his career as an Oxford don and beloved fantasy author, and, finally, to his enduring legacy.

Through Horne’s narrative, the reader can clearly see how Tolkien’s life experiences and intellectual interests contributed to his creation of The Lord of the Rings and other works.  For example, his study of the Icelandic language and love of old Norse mythology is reflected in the culture of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.   His courtship and marriage of his wife, Edith, was related by Tolkien himself to a romantic story in The Simarillion of an elf who sacrifices her immortal life to marry a mortal man.  Horne also shows the impact of Tolkien’s strong Roman Catholic faith on his life and his fantasy writings.

Ironically, the intensity of Tolkien’s intellectual commitments sometimes hindered his success in his academic and professional endeavors.   For example, as a young Oxford student, Tolkien’s interest in Germanic languages and literature distracted him from his exams in the Classics (his supposed field of study at the time).   Later, as an Oxford don, his perfectionism prompted him to constantly rewrite papers and stories rather than submit them for publication (as academics are expected to do).  It was Tolkien’s close friend, C.S. Lewis, who encouraged him to stop rewriting and start publishing.  As a voracious reader of fiction who unfortunately lacks a talent for writing it, I found these details of the downside to creative genius to be fascinating.

As anyone who has ever read The Lord of the Rings knows, reading Tolkien’s masterpiece requires a huge time commitment, one that is, of course, well-rewarded.  Horne’s biography, on the other hand, can be zipped through in an evening or two, yet I believe it will greatly enhance the reader’s enjoyment of Tolkien’s works.  I highly recommend this book.

Be the People: A Call to Reclaim America’s Faith & Promise by Carol M. Swain, PhD

There are other books on the market, written by respected conservatives, that seek to defend the premise that America was founded on religious, even Christian, principles, and to refute the currently popular cultural notion that our Constitution (particularly the First Amendment) necessitates a complete divorce of religion and politics or public life. Dr. Swain’s book goes further than that. She compares the founding of our country to the covenant that ancient Israel had with God; she goes so far as to say that many of the Founders intended for America to be built on a NEW covenant with the Creator. As we have, as a culture, turned our collective backs on this covenant, we have put our nation at risk, because just as God’s judgement fell on ancient Israel, so too it may fall on the United States of America. Dr. Swain’s book is a call to action for all Americans, especially Christian Americans, to sincerely repent of sin and of apathy, and to work together to reclaim our culture.

The book describes America’s religious history and foundation (including acknowledging that BOTH Christian and deist philosophies influenced the Founders), and then goes on to discuss cultural issues of our day, including abortion, gay marriage, divorce, immigration, and race relations.  Swain’s treatments of these issues are very well-researched and well-articulated.   The only complaint I have about the book, in fact, is that many times I felt that Swain was leaving a certain discussion to move onto another topic, but I wanted to read more!  I suspect she could easily have made three or four books out of her material and had to edit quite a lot in order to have a manageable manuscript.  I especially appreciated the way the author’s personal experiences as an African-American woman inform her discussion of issues such as poverty, abortion, single-motherhood, race relations, and “the American Dream.”

It’s so easy for those of us who believe that our culture is deteriorating to feel helpless to turn things around.   I know I do.  It feels as if the tide is moving in the wrong direction and all of us are getting swept up in that tide whether we like it or not.   Dr. Swain’s book leaves the reader with hope,  hope that with prayer and hard work —  and God’s help — we can redeem American culture.   I pray that she is right.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Final Summit: A Quest to Find the One Prinicple That Will Save Humanity, by Andy Andrews

An engrossing novel…but the ending, and the solution to the puzzle, fall flat.

I read Andy Andrews’ novel, The Final Summit, with great interest. The story reintroduces David Ponder, the main character from Andrews’ previous novel, The Traveler’s Gift (which I have not read). Decades after his time travel adventures in the previous novel, David is again visited by the archangel Gabriel, who informs him that he (David) has been selected as the leader of a summit of time travelers (many of the others being famous historical figures). The purpose of the summit is for the participants to come up with the correct answer to the question: “What does humanity need to do, individually and collectively, to restore itself to the pathway toward successful civilization?” (p. 67). The stakes are high — Gabriel informs David and the other summit members that the future of humanity depends on them coming up with the right solution.

I would love to be a spectator at the summit which Andrews’ imagination has conjured up. How incredible it would be to just sit and listen as historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Joan of Arc, George Washington Carver, and Anne Frank debate the essential elements of human nature and the betterment of our world. (I suppose some might criticize Andrews for choosing mostly American and European individuals as members of his summit, but I think that’s natural given that he’s writing to an American audience.) The conversations that take place during the summit were fascinating to me. I had to discipline myself not to look to the end of the novel to find the solution that the characters at last decided upon. Then I finally reached the ending — and the novel fell flat. I won’t reveal the solution, but I will say that the answer, which the archangel Gabriel approved as the “correct” one, is completely devoid of any reference to humanity’s need for God (or Christ).

I should mention here that I am an avid reader of all kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction, “Christian” and “secular.” I am not someone who believes that a book must have an overtly Christian message to be of value, as entertainment or even as instruction. But this isn’t just any book — this is a novel in which the characters are trying to decide what humanity NEEDS.  In my opinion (and I realize many readers of this review may disagree), what humanity needs is Jesus. I suppose that, because the publisher, Thomas Nelson, is a Christian publisher, and because this imagined summit takes place in what seems to be heaven, I was expecting a very different ending. And it seems strange that Gabriel, who describes himself several times in the book as a “servant of God,” ends by accepting a humanist/postmodern solution to the puzzle in which God is absent. I also think that, even if I were not a Christian, the characters’ eventual solution would seem inadequate to me, especially given the thought-provoking discussion which preceeds it.  My reaction was basically: “Huh? That’s IT?”

I’ve never read a book by this author before, but judging from this example, I think he’s a very gifted writer. Too bad he’s missed the point.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

What Difference Do It Make? by Ron Hall, Denver Moore, and Lynn Vincent. Published by Thomas Nelson.

What Difference Do It Make? is the sequel to the authors’ bestseller, Same Kind of Different As Me, the true story of an unlikely and life-changing friendship between a wealthy art dealer (Ron Hall) and an illiterate homeless man (Denver Moore). But you don’t have to have read the first book to be touched by this one — I hadn’t, when I first received this sequel as a Thomas Nelson book review blogger.

The book’s voice alternates from chapter to chapter between the first-person memories and musings of Ron Hall to those of his coauthor Denver Moore. (The third co-author, Lynn Vincent, is not one of the actors in the book.) Excerpts (plainly set apart from the rest of the text) from the first book are included, to help the reader track the story. Also included are stories of readers — people from all over the country whose lives changed through the first book in myriad ways, from a family who decided to adopt from Ethiopia, to children inspired to raise money for the homeless, and more. Mr. Hall and Mr. Moore are both gut-wrenchingly honest in the book. The book is touching and challenging, and I highly recommend it.

(Disclosure:  I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, in exchange for reviewing it.   I am not required to post a positive review, just provide my own opinion.   For more on this book review blogger program, see http://www.booksneeze.com.)